M. DREW: First things first – You stood among real-life fire for your feature video. What? What spurred this on?
JOHAN MALDONADO: We were wrapping up our debut EP and album layout was becoming a pressing issue. We came up with a myriad of ideas including using a band photo for the cover instead of art. One of us mentioned we should do something crazy like set ourselves on fire. Intrigued, we did our homework on burning band photos and of course found a few. But the fires were clearly fake computer wizardry. The bands looked like they were chillin in a sauna rather than sizzling in the depths of hell. We were convinced this was a freakishly good idea and developed the concept a little more. Jon (guitar) hit up a buddy in the stunt biz (Jay Torrez) who made the connections to put it together and a few weeks later we’re in a stunt lab wearing fire-proof suits. The photo represents our burning desire to be successful musicians in the cutthroat music business and what we’re willing to do to get there. The potential risk we took mirrors the risk we take to sacrifice time, other possible career opportunities, personal income, and family so we can give this band 110%.
M.D: Take us through the nuts and bolts of this – how do you get fire on a closed set? What’s the procedure? What precautions have to be taken (beyond the obvious?)
JM: First things first; we’re not stuntmen so DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME!! Legendary stunt coordinator Lane Leavitt (Terminator 2) has his own stunt warehouse called Leavittation Studios on the outskirts of Los Angeles. It was a two day process. Day 1 was training and fire suits. He explained the complexities of fire and how it works. I believe his exact words were, “If you breathe fire, you’re dead”. Using something similar to rubber cement for the fuel, we did a “burn” with fire suits that day. But the real fun was the actual photo shoot on Day 2. We wanted to wear our own clothes for the shoot and this is where Mr. Leavitt’s experience came into play. He had us wear a protective full body fire resistant undergarment covered in thickened water (a fire resistant gel). We wore our clothes over the garment and sprayed gel on any exposed skin that could be harmed in the burn. Don’t wanna give away all the secrets my friends. Let there be no doubt that the fire is very REAL. And we are four crazy sons of bitches that lit themselves up so the world can see we mean business.
M.D: Whose idea was this? Were there any reservations from anyone about attempting this?
JM: Jon is arguably the most reserved band member (he even hates sweating on stage). So when he suggested we set ourselves on fire, we thought he was joking. But once we realized he wasn’t, we all were pumped and rolled with it. No doubt we were a little nervous when we arrived at the stunt lab the first day. But after actually being set on fire with the suits and Mr. Leavitt’s reassuring guidance, we were confident and mentally ready to set ourselves ablaze going into Day 2.
M.D: Your album features a showcase of different styles blended together, which does your band feel most comfortable performing?
JM: The band is definitely a microcosm of our hometown. We’re a group of individuals forged from different walks of life who grew up with different customs and listening to different styles of music. That “blend” you’re hearing IS our style and what we feel most comfortable playing. Think of it this way, a pitcher with only one pitch in his throwing arsenal isn’t gonna get very far playing pro ball because every team will know what to expect. We don’t like confusing our listeners, just pleasantly surprising them. We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel or for that matter be the hardest, fastest, ballsiest band in the universe. For the album, we just wanted to write music that SOUNDED good with no regard to being genre specific. We want to take you on a musical journey when you listen to our songs. I personally love the fact that we’re not one trick ponies because it keeps our fans and listeners simply wanting more.
M.D: Is there any concern that by trying to utilize so many phases, your album is overly ambitious? How do you balance the acoustic intros and differing vocal cadences into a cohesive whole?
JM: As far as the phases there’s no concern at all. I’m not sure if it’s a good or bad thing that we have such a diverse style, but I can assure you it’s normal for us. We don’t go into the studio and literally say “OK today we’re gonna write a progressive odd meter track and it MUST be heavy!!” it just naturally happens. When we started writing more acoustic stuff, it was an inspiring breath of fresh air. “The Wrath” is a good example of that balance between the acoustics and vocal cadences. I had a lot of fun with it, especially on the pre chorus. The vocal melodies weave each part together and let you know where the song is going. That’s something I don’t get to do very often, but definitely got to do more of on this album.
M.D: What kind of bands inspired your approach? Who is your inspiration?
JM: In no particular order but in order of preference; wuh!? Whatever… Deftones, Jimi Hendrix, Metallica, Rage Against the Machine, Stone Temple Pilots (pre-heroin), The Mars Volta, Tool, Weezer, Depeche Mode (once again pre-heroin), Beck, Santana, Soundgarden, Korn (their first and second album that’s it), Stevie Ray Vaughn, Bob Marley, Incubus, Guns & Roses, Tupac, Bad Religion, Sublime (no Rome; jk glad to have ‘em back), Fiona Apple, Sade, Mana, and Radiohead just to name a few. Yes I love music! And when it comes to my craft, it sounds cliché but my lil ones inspire me the most. They’re counting on their pops and I don’t intend to let them down.
M.D: There are moments (“Here’s to the Angels” is one,) where your presentation gets into rap metal a little, and unlike many others who have attempted it, it works for you. What made you head down that road?
JM: Hmmm… Well again it’s not something premeditated especially as far as the instruments go. I dig rap and hip hop and have even lent my lyrical scheming to hip hop/rap projects in the past. True rappers can freestyle, and I suck at that so I’m not a rapper. I started developing that style in couple of our former band albums. I call it my rhyme scheme which I like to use tastefully. I felt HTTA needed vocals that sounded like someone had taken over the emergency broadcast system alerting every one of the deteriorating state of music. Jon’s 7-string coupled with the driving rhythm of Mike (drums) and Chenzo (bass) give the song a deathly punch to the gut, so the sharp edges of the rhyme scheme were appropriate. We use the rhyme scheme on The Fight as well, so HTTA is not a one off.
M.D: Do you feel like rap metal is a splinter genre that is in need of revival? What draws you to it?
JM: Rap Metal had its time which was very short-lived during the 90’s (don’t forget about its beginnings with Public Enemy/Anthrax and Aerosmith/Run DMC in the mid 80’s). I don’t consider RATM rap metal (more like politirock) but they were masters of this style. Until a better band comes along, a full revival just seems pointless. We’re not a rap metal outfit, so writing every song in that style is out of the question. We only use it tastefully and respectfully when the song calls for it. We all get a boner when we jam HTTA; it’s groove heavy. As long as it gets a positive response from our fans, rest assured we’ll continue to experiment with this style.
M.D: What lessons did this album have for you? Where are you now as musicians as opposed to when you began the process?
JM: In our past projects we’ve always completely self-produced our albums. This time, while we technically did still produce it ourselves, we worked with Fred Archambault (Producer/Mixing Engineer - Avenged Sevenfold) throughout much of the pre-production process. The best decision we’ve ever made. Having that outside opinion really deflated the egos and allowed us to focus on the music. We’ve been jamming together for 7+ years now, so many lessons have been learned along the way. All that experience and continuity translated into a fairly smooth recording process (we always argue; just not as much). After having worked with Fred, we trust each other’s opinions and ideas more now than when we first started out.
M.D: Your album is loaded with energy, did that come about as part of your style of play, or was that intended in the writing?
JM: Both! We’re proud of our studio work but it’s our live show that seals the deal for most people who’ve only heard the music. Over the years people would say that our albums didn’t do the live shows justice. That’s not a good thing for us. A lot of that had to do with us obsessing and butchering the songs in the studio coupled with constant arguing. We knew we had to find a way to recreate the live setting in the studio but had no clue how. Once again, Fred really helped us focus on the music. He motivated us to drop our inhibitions and differences which were only creating a negative environment in the studio. It was a lot smoother from there on out. I also took a different approach in the recording booth by trying to imagine I was performing live in front of a crowd.
M.D: Your plan to donate copies of the album to the US Army is, if it means anything coming from me, very a noble one. What made you decide to undertake such a gesture? Do you personally have a military connection?
JM: Over the years, we’ve had the privilege of meeting and befriending many troops in every branch of our military at our shows. Periodically, they’ll ship out and we won’t see them for a while. Poor brothers and sisters are either stuck on a boat in the middle of the ocean or landlocked with nothing but IED’s and dirt to keep them company for months at a time. But as our military friends came and went, they would tell us stories about how they would bump our music in their iPods religiously to help them get through the long days. We were humbled and felt compelled to find a way to say thank you. Donating the album is the least we can do for our troops and hopefully gives them a temporary escape from the daily grind. We’re proud to say we have a thriving network of military friends. We actually hangout with our military pals too. Our military pal Greg (a.k.a. Baby Hobbit) hit the road with us a couple years ago. And our buddy Joe, who also served as a marine, is going on the road with us for the fourth time this spring.
M.D: What has reception to your donation been? Have you been getting feedback from those overseas?
JM: Since shipping out the first batch of CDs we have gotten several messages from troops who received a copy in a care package, saying thanks and that they dig the tunes. It’s a very rewarding feeling… one we don’t take for granted.